Five characteristics of playful experiences
The five characteristics listed below are inspired by seminal academic papers describing how children as well as youngsters of other species play, extensive work with practitioners in the field, and reviews of the professional literature about play and learning. We do not view them as providing any formal definition of play, but they do help unfold how playful experiences lead to deeper learning.
We say learning through play happens when the activity (1) is experienced as joyful, (2) helps children find meaning in what they are doing or learning, (3) involves active, engaged, minds-on thinking, (4) as well as iterative thinking (experimentation, hypothesis testing, etc.) and (5) involves social interaction.
These five characteristics draw on evidence for how children learn best (the "Science of Learning") and how to foster a playful mindset.
Joy is at the heart of play - both enjoying a task for its own sake and the momentary thrill of surprise, insight or success after overcoming challenges. Recent research shows how curiosity and positive experiences are linked to learning; for example, infants show more learning after a surprising event than after one that is expected.
Learning through play also involves being actively engaged. Imagine a child who’s fully absorbed in playing with a set of building blocks. She is actively imagining how the pieces will go together and is so engrossed that she fails to hear her father call her for dinner. This mental immersion and ability to stay focused are especially powerful in the context of learning through play.
Meaningful is when the child can relate new experiences to something already known. In play, children often explore what they have seen and done, or noticed others do, as a way of grasping what it means. By doiong so, they can express and expand their understanding through a variety in media, symbols and tools.
From a toddler trying different ways to build a high tower with blocks, to a young child discovering that the angle of a slide impacts how far a marble will shoot across a room, iteration – trying out possibilities, revising hypotheses and discovering the next question – leads to increased learning.
Social interaction is a powerful tool for both learning and play. By communicating their thoughts, understanding others through direct interaction and sharing ideas, children are not only able to enjoy being with others, but also to build deeper understanding and more powerful relationships.
These five characteristics ebb and flow as children are engaged in learning through play and not all five are necessary all the time. But over time, children should experience moments of joy and surprise, a meaningful connection, be active and absorbed, iterate and engage with others.
What we mean by: Learning through play
In this leaflet, we share our view of play as an important vehicle for children’s learning and about how playful experiences support children in developing the skills to serve them, their communities and society through a lifetime.
Learning through play
Skills for holistic development
Theorists, researchers and practitioners in child development and education have done an excellent job of extending our view of learning to go beyond memorising academic content, by highlighting a breadth of skills – physical, social, emotional, cognitive and creative.